John Hollinger's and Sam Vecenie's 2022 NBA Draft Combine notebook

John Hollinger’s and Sam Vecenie’s 2022 NBA Draft Combine notebook

The 2022 NBA Draft Combine has come and gone, with the event achieving its usual goal of kicking off the draft cycle in earnest. John Hollinger was on the ground in Chicago, and Sam Vecenie worked the phone lines from afar, each tirelessly drinking coffee and gaining intel from the event. Here’s what they learned:

How do we make the combine more valuable for attendees?

The first thing everyone talks about at the combine is how to make it better. To its credit, the league has made some progress, encouraging five-on-five participation, streamlining the “agent workouts” (more on these in a minute) and tweaking the event’s timing so that only four teams are still playing when it happens.

That said, what do you think is going to happen when a couple hundred people get together to talk shop? As ever, the gripes were abundant:

  • A continuing bug in the program is getting the top-ranked players to participate. While no sane person thinks a potential top-five pick will actually play basketball here, the reluctance of many prospects to submit to health and medical examinations has been a sore spot. The league can’t compel players who are not yet part of the NBA to participate in such tests, but one wonders if it could create a workaround in the next CBA. For instance, requiring players who want to enter the draft early to submit to health and medical exams at the combine would effectively eliminate the problem.
  • A more maddening issue has been players’ unwillingness to participate in the five-on-five portion of the combine, even if they probably should to improve their draft stock. In a way, this mechanism could end up being self-correcting. Several players moved up teams’ boards in 2021 partly as a result of playing in Chicago, including a few who vaulted into the first round (notably 12th pick Joshua Primo, 24th pick Josh Christopher and 25th pick Quentin Grimes).
  • With this year’s solid play of Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams and some others foreboding the same (more on that below), one wonders if agents will stop overplaying their hands. Several players who either stood pretty firmly in second-round territory (Marquette’s Justin Lewis, Duke’s Wendell Moore) or had little to lose by playing five-on-five (G League Ignite’s Jaden Hardy, Milwaukee’s Patrick Baldwin, Michigan State’s Max Christie) nonetheless sat out that portion. Amusingly, NC State’s Terquavion Smith pulled out of the second day of games after “proving” himself with a 6-for-17 shooting performance in the first one.
  • The so-called pro days or “agent workouts” arranged by agent groups continue to be a leading source of griping from front office personnel. These are little more than shows run by the agents to showcase their clients running and dunking, and definitely not playing basketball against another human being. The general opinion was that they were near-worthless as a player-evaluation tool and incredibly time-consuming at a time when execs don’t have a ton of free hours.
  • Nonetheless, team reps felt obligated to attend because everyone else was going, and because they didn’t want to insult the agents. Everyone admits it’s mostly fake hustle, but in some cases, there is real value for team execs who haven’t been on the road as much. If they haven’t seen a prospect in the flesh yet, this can be their best chance to get eyes on a first-round prospect they expect to be long gone before they pick. Occasionally, an agency might roll out a three-on-three that features a couple of interesting prospects.
  • While the league at least coordinated to put a bunch of these workouts in Chicago rather than forcing team execs to travel hither and yon (a few others are concentrated on Southern California next week), that puts additional pressure on the week’s already compressed schedule. Staff often had to go from long days interviewing prospects directly to agent workouts at night. The most prominent emotion by Friday was exhaustion.

Intel dump

But enough of our whining. What other scuttlebutt emerged from the week in Chicago?

  • Orlando winning the lottery could throw a monkey wrench on draft night. While most draft analysts have Jabari Smith Jr. rated as the top prospect, John Hollinger Spies think the Magic are leaning toward selecting Chet Holmgren. Of course, that would play to their type. This front office’s track record reveals an obsession with length, so one can easily connect the dots there.
  • On the other hand, some league insiders immediately second-guessed that first instinct. Are the Magic just playing on their length-based reputation to bait Oklahoma City into trading up from No. 2? Let the game of smoke signals begin.
  • Most people who spoke with The Athletic expect a lot of trade and player movement leading up to the draft and beyond. Even in the lottery, we could see some action. Sacramento has a clear win-now expectation, several front office members on the last year of their contracts and the fourth pick in the draft burning a hole in its pocket. One suspects that pick might be in play in return for some wing help.
  • The pick that seems even more certain to be on the move is Portland’s at No. 7, with sources saying the Blazers will push to immediately put a competitive team around Damian Lillard rather than start over. Detroit’s Jerami Grant has been the hot name here, but the Blazers could look at other options.
  • We were critical of the Lakers’ decision to not pay a team cash to take DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline, but it may pay off at the draft. L.A. has been open about using its remaining cash stash (the Lakers can put $4.7 million into a trade between now and July 1) to buy its way into the second round, where the Lakers currently do not have a pick. The Lakers’ scouting department has built up an impressive track record of finding sleepers late in the draft, so it will be interesting to see who they might target. (One other note for the cap nerds: The Lakers still could have done a Jordan trade and then bought their second-rounder in a pre-arranged trade when the new cap year’s cash rolls over on July 1; that has been done before, but also would have impacted their flexibility for 2022-23.)
  • Other teams with multiple picks are expected to try to move up in the draft, which could make trading down profitable for those picking in the late lottery and teens. Oklahoma City, for instance, has picks at No. 12 and No. 30 and a surfeit of future picks to sweeten a deal; using those to move up and nab a targeted player seems like a no-brainer. Other multi-first-rounder teams to watch include San Antonio (Nos. 9, 20 and 25), Charlotte (Nos. 13 and 15) and Memphis (Nos. 22 and 29). San Antonio, in particular, had a sea of staff at the combine intently watching the proceedings.
  • Finally, Oklahoma City’s pick at No. 30 was the topic of other speculation. Michigan forward Caleb Houstan was notably absent from the week’s proceedings, with many league insiders suspecting he had a promise from a team in return for shutting down his draft process. Suspicion immediately went to the Thunder, given their surplus of picks and long history of making their draft pick in April. Houstan wouldn’t even be the first Michigan guy they did this with. (Hello, Mitch McGary!)


Shaedon Sharpe worked out solo early in the week in Chicago. (Jordan Prather / USA Today)

A Shaedon Sharpe sighting

If the NBA Draft has a mystery man within the top 10, it is indeed Sharpe, a 6-foot-5 wing from Canada who committed to Kentucky early this season, got on campus for the second semester, sat out the season and then declared for the draft as an early entrant. He is eligible for the draft by nature of having graduated high school before the 2021-22 NBA season began and by turning 19 before the end of 2022.

Evaluators got a chance to see him go through one of those one-on-zero workouts on Monday held by his agency. Per the sources in attendance, he ran through a number of drills put on by trainers and got a chance to show off some of his shot-making ability and leaping. Still, the main takeaway from evaluators and decision-makers who spoke with The Athletic was essentially, “What did we actually learn here?”

As mentioned above, that is a typical takeaway from evaluators sitting through these types of workouts. But it felt a bit more pronounced with Sharpe’s for a few reasons, including the absence of valuable game film on him. A lot of what came through from sources was that absolutely nothing was done at game speed, with most of the drills in terms of his handle being executed more slowly than what he’ll face on an NBA court. He didn’t do anything complex. For a player who few have actually seen at high-level game speed much, the workout didn’t provide any insight into the actual questions to which decision-makers would like some semblance of an answer before potentially selecting him on draft night. It was a prime example of why these pro days can be so frustrating.

This shouldn’t be mistaken for saying that Sharpe performed poorly. Those in attendance said he looked very bouncy, and his in-person length impressed those who were seeing him for the first time. He didn’t burn the net down or anything with his shooting, but hit enough shots off the catch and his own dribble — particularly stepbacks and side-steps — to showcase his long-term potential. But no one is going to be rushing to the podium based on Monday’s workout.

Sharpe backed up that workout by confirming those measurements, coming in at 6-foot-5 in shoes with a 6-foot-11.5 wingspan and a good standing reach for a wing. He then opted out of the rest of the proceedings.

The big winner of the combine

Among actual NBA Draft Combine participants — limited as they were — the name that stood out most often was Santa Clara wing Jalen Williams. It’s tough to find a part of the proceedings that he didn’t ace. He’s been rising up the board throughout the pre-draft process as teams go back through tape at the end of the season to catch up on guys they missed and put the overall class in context. Both of us had Williams with a first-round grade coming in, but his stock has exploded into the stratosphere following his week in Chicago.

First and foremost, he measured at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. His standing reach came in higher than guys expected to play a lot of minutes at the four, like E.J. Liddell, David Roddy, Jake LaRavia and Jabari Walker. Beyond that, Williams is a wing player who can handle the ball to collapse a defense and make plays for his teammates off passes. He also knocked down 3s at a 40 percent clip in college. While his defensive ability has raised some questions, he’s big and long enough to become more versatile as he keeps developing his frame in NBA strength and conditioning programs.

It all came together in the five-on-five games, where Williams was outstanding. He was one of the best players on the court in his first day, helping to lead his team to a late victory. A few guys decided to pull out after playing well the first day, but Williams doubled down. On the second day, he put together the best performance from anyone at the event, scoring 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting while completely rolling over the competition.

We obviously shouldn’t go nuts and overrate the importance of these types of games or events. They don’t overshadow the entirety of the tape and the body of work Williams put in over the season. But Williams was already getting second and third looks from teams after they realized how good the tape really was. NBA scouts and decision-makers at the event sent us more texts about Williams than any other player at the event who actually participated in the proceedings. At this point, we expect he ends up being picked near the top-20 on draft night.

Other five-on-five standouts

  • Terquavion Smith (NC State) shut it down after the first scrimmage at the combine. He dropped 17 points to lead his team. It wasn’t the most efficient outing, but he showcased real ability to get to his shot whenever he wanted. On the back of strong athletic testing and a good shooting day, Smith should feel like he’s in a good spot heading into the rest of the cycle, even if he only went 6-for-17. As much as anything, that says a lot about how low the standard is for playing well and how much prospects can gain from playing five-on-five.
  • Andrew Nembhard (Gonzaga) missed the first day of scrimmages with a thigh injury, but made up for lost time on the final day, with a 26-point, 11-assist outburst that was easily the best single-game performance of the week. His passing was a known quantity, but his ability to make pull-up jumpers off the dribble in the pick-and-roll answered some scouts’ questions about his scoring ability.
  • Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) has his limitations as a traditional beast-ball big man, but he had the best per-minute game score of any player to play on both days. His frame (a rock-solid 7-0 in shoes with a 7-4 wingspan) makes him a relatively safe pick as a backup five. He’ll be in the mix in the second round for teams looking for size.
  • Drew Timme (Gonzaga) opened some eyes by making four 3-pointers on the second day of scrimmages — he was 5-of-8 overall — and also had a legendary protest of a traveling call against him. Timme measured 6-9 in shoes and will need to play the four at the next level. He showed enough skill to potentially pull it off.
  • Dereon Seabron (NC State) measured short (6-6 in shoes, not the 6-7 he was listed at in college) and isn’t a shooter, but his ability to get downhill and complete a variety of finishes at the rim again separated him.

Some five-on-five disappointments

  • In a crowded field of shooting guards, Keon Ellis (Alabama) struggled to distinguish himself in the two games. He wasn’t bad so much as invisible, scoring just nine points in the two games with few other additions to the box score.
  • David Roddy (Colorado State) missed all six of his 3-point attempts and shot 5-of-17 overall. Scouts have seen enough of his shooting to trust that the misfires from deep were not indicative of his long-range marksmanship, but his inability to make more of an impact in other facets of the game will add to the concerns about how his body type translates to the next level.
  • Canadian mystery man Leonard Miller narrowly edged out Roddy and Ellis for the lowest per-minute game score of the two games. A raw teenager, he missed a number of open 3-point looks and looked lost on defense. He might do well to spend a year of seasoning in college or the G League before jumping to the NBA.

LaRavia Madness

The draft community buzzed with speculation following Jake LaRavia’s choice to not play five-on-five action, wondering if the Wake Forest forward had a promise following a strong first day at the combine. He measured out at 6-foot-8, he tested well athletically for what was expected, and he was one of the best players to participate in the shooting drills. He also posted one of the best scores in the lane-agility drill, a surprising result for a player whose main concern for teams revolves around his ability to defend guards out on the perimeter when in switches.

Ultimately, LaRavia pulled out of the rest of the events simply because he and his agency are comfortable with his general range, not because he already has a specific destination. The goal was to show that he could shoot and that he was more athletic than expected, and that mission was accomplished by the time Wednesday night rolled around. LaRavia should be expected to hear his name called somewhere in the top 35 on draft night and has a very good chance starting at pick No. 20. Size, shooting and elite feel for the game are a tough combination to find, and a lot of contenders have real interest in him within those final 10 picks of the first round.


Jake LaRavia elevates for a shot against Virginia. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Measurement guys

  • Mark Williams (Duke) came in at 7-foot-2 in shoes with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and a 9-foot-9 standing reach. That standing reach is actually the second-biggest of all time behind Celtics legend Tacko Fall. Williams has a very good chance to hear his name called in the lottery on draft night by the end of the process.
  • Likely lottery pick Dyson Daniels (G League Ignite) backed up his rumored growth in terms of height, measuring 6-foot-7 1/2 in shoes as a guy who plays about half of his time as a lead guard. He also has a 6-foot-10 1/2 wingspan and an 8-foot-10 standing reach that is among the elite for combo guards in the last decade. NBA teams had been hearing for weeks that Daniels had grown over the last year, so getting this down on paper for him was enormous. He’s likely to hear his name called in the top 10.
  • Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis did himself some good by coming in at more than 6-foot-4 without shoes, when some teams had some very real concerns that he’d be about that height with shoes. At 6-foot-5 3/4 in shoes with an 8-foot-7 1/2 standing reach, Davis looks well-suited to playing either wing position now as opposed to coming in with measurements that would leave him position-locked as a two.
  • Tari Eason (LSU) measured as well as expected at 6-foot-8 in shoes with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. The thing that popped off the page though was his 11-inch hand-width. That’s essentially a Kawhi Leonard-like mark, as the former San Diego State forward had 11 1/4-inch hands when he was at the combine back in 2011. Eason had the biggest hands at this combine. It’s hard to come up with a more ideal frame for a combo forward than Eason’s.
  • Overtime Elite forward Dom Barlow has drawn real interest from NBA teams throughout this process due to his size, athleticism, length and shooting ability. He’s definitely a project, but his measurements confirmed why he’s a project that’s worth the investment. Barlow came in at 6-foot-10 in shoes with a 9-foot standing reach and a 7-foot-3 wingspan. That’s even bigger across the board than what teams expected, along with 10 1/2-inch hands. The hype with Overtime Elite all season has been centered around Jean Montero. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Barlow actually be the first OTE player selected.
  • A couple of other perimeter players with great length/enormous hand combinations: Justin Lewis at Marquette was 6-foot-7 1/2 with a 7-foot-2 1/2 wingspan, along with 10 1/2-inch hands. NBA teams already had Leonard Miller’s measurements from Nike Hoop Summit, but he also came in again at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and 10 1/2-inch hands. Guys with these kinds of frames and perimeter-style games tend to figure it out at the NBA level at some point in their trajectory. Think O.G. Anunoby, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and others. These guys all went outside of the top 20, but made it work at the next level. Don’t be surprised if the Barlows, Lewises and Millers of the world end up being the next ones to do so.
  • Some other surprises: Drew Timme came in with a plus-six wingspan, although as referenced previously he did come in just a touch shorter than hoped at 6-foot-9 …Baylor wing Kendall Brown came in a bit shorter than expected with a 8-foot-7 standing reach, meaning he’s much more of a three than a four size-wise, even with his athleticism. … Purdue center Trevion Williams was just 6-foot-8 in shoes, but he came in with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a 9-foot-1/2 standing reach that will give him a shot to stick as a smaller, skilled center. He also was slimmed down a bit more than expected, which was a good sign for his continued physical improvement. … Arizona wing Dalen Terry only measured, but he did so outstandingly with a 6-foot-7 height in shoes and a near-7-foot-1 wingspan that will give teams hope on his developmental pathway as a bigger guard that can slide down to the wing.

G League Elite Camp

The G League Elite Camp wasn’t exactly a standout environment this year, a likely byproduct of the NBA choosing to invite an entirely preposterous 76 players to the combine. NBA scouts came away from the event believing that very few guys were truly NBA caliber, but it’s worth mentioning those guys. All four of these players earned call-ups to the NBA Draft Combine itself.

  • Marcus Sasser, Houston: Sasser was the one guy who got nearly unanimous praise from scouts. Returning for the first time from a foot injury that made him miss a large portion of the season, he put on a terrific shooting display in the first scrimmage and looked like the best player. He was the one guy most scouts thought was a genuine NBA player that had a shot at earning not just a two-way contract, but a roster spot to start his career. Sasser is still testing the waters and has two terrific options. Either he’ll receive assurances that make him comfortable enough to stay in the draft, or he’ll return to college where he’ll be a likely All-American on a Houston team that could be the best in college hoops next season. Additionally, he’ll get to play with a pair of freshman prospects NBA scouts will watch closely in Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux. There’s no losing for Sasser here.
  • Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall and Tyrese Martin, Connecticut: A pair of tough, physical wings from the Big East who parlayed great outings at the Portsmouth Invitational into strong G League camps and combine invites. Both defended well and attacked the basket, using mature frames to overpower some of the younger guys at both events. Rhoden is slightly more interesting to a wider swath of NBA teams due to his elite length, but both should expect to end up as two-way contract players. Each of them has really helped themselves throughout the pre-draft process.
  • Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech: Lofton showed much more perimeter game than expected, despite being visibly overweight. The lefty’s capacity with jab step moves from the 3-point line was particularly notable; he earned a promotion to the main event after initially shining in the G League Elite camp to start the week. Much like Sasser, Lofton is still testing his draft stock. He’s also in the transfer portal and has a bevy of suitors after him. He should probably head down that route, continue to improve his conditioning — he looked to be in better shape than he was in college this past year — and keep expanding his game. Whereas he was more of a longshot candidate entering this week, the flashes he showed as a ballhandler and shooter put him more on the radar than he was prior to his efforts in Chicago.

Related reading

Aldridge: Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan is on a journey to be ‘that irritating player’
Vorkunov: More draft intel from a week in Chicago

(Top photo of Jalen Williams: David Banks / USA Today)


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